An authority will not provide me with the records I requested unless I pay a fee. Is this allowed under the law?
Answer: The Wisconsin Public Records Law permits an authority to impose a fee upon a requester but only for four specific tasks. An authority may charge for the following: (1) Reproduction and transcription of a record (this includes fees for copies); (2) photographing and photographic processing of a record; (3) locating a record; and (4) mailing or shipping a record. Although an authority is allowed to charge for these four tasks, the fee cannot exceed the actual, necessary, and direct cost of completing these tasks. An authority may not make a profit on its response to a public records request. The amount of such fees may vary depending on the authority. For example, the Department of Justice (DOJ) charge $0.15 per page for a hard copy of a record while other authorities may charge more or less. (Although anything in excess of $0.25 per page may be suspect.)
While the law permits an authority to impose a fee for locating records, it may only do so if the cost is $50.00 or more. Locating a record means to find it by searching, examining, or experimenting. Generally, the rate for an actual, necessary, and direct charge for staff time (such as for locating a record) should be based on the pay rate of the lowest paid employee capable of performing the task. Additionally, an authority may require prepayment for the costs associated with responding to a public records request if the total amount exceeds $5.00. An authority may not charge for the time it takes to redact records.
Within the public records law, there is no specific indigency provision. However, an authority has discretion to provide requested records for free or at a reduced charge if it determines that doing so is in the public interest. It is up to each authority to determine whether or not to reduce its fees or waive them altogether.
Finally, other statutes may establish express exceptions to the general fee provisions of the public records law. For example, court records and records recorded by registers of deeds have fees set by other specific statutes. For additional information, please see DOJ’s Wisconsin Public Records Law Compliance Guide available through the Office of Open Government’s webpage.